A child’s first home

I’m heading to Dallas this morning, and as I’m leaving home for two days I want to share Haley Stewart’s recent reflection on our first home:

As my fourth baby has learned to crawl over the past few weeks, I watch her launch out across the living room to grab toys and explore. After scurrying several feet away, she will turn her head back to where I sit cross-legged on the floor and return to me, climbing into my lap to rest her head on my chest or pat my cheek with her chubby palm before going on her next tiny adventure across the room.

My five-year-old, for so many years the baby of the family, still asks to sit in my lap each day. While we eat lunch, while she does schoolwork, while we read books at bedtime, her little girl limbs find a way to curl up into the space where she found comfort for so long.

My seven-year-old wraps her arms around me many times a day for a huge hug. She touches my hair or shoulders as she walks past me. She runs into my embrace when she scrapes her knee.

My ten-year-old still snuggles up as we look over math problems and read together. He still wants a hug to comfort him when he is distressed or needs to resolve a disagreement.

While my children’s need for physical touch can be exhausting, it reminds me of a beautiful truth: my body will always be my children’s first home. My body is the space where they were woven together, where their tiny baby arms and legs kicked and swam, their first cradle that rocked them to sleep.

When I was 23 and my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was struck by this truth. Already married and a new mother myself, I was in the process of creating my own home and family. And yet, the prospect of losing my mom made me feel unmoored and lost. Praise God, she has been cancer free for almost 10 years. But no matter how old I am, losing my mother someday will be the loss of home—my first home. In both an emotional and physical reality. The loss of her presence will take away from the comfort of visiting my hometown. It will not feel like home, because my first home, her very body, will not be there.

We know now that some of a baby’s cells to stay in the body of her mother (fetal microchimerism). Part of each of my children will be with me forever and they each have a piece of me. We are physically connected for our whole lives. But a mother’s connection to her child transcends DNA. We will find home in those who have been a mother to us. Our birth mothers, our adoptive mothers, our foster mothers, women who have stepped in to mother us when our own mothers may be separated from us by death, illness, addiction, or abuse.

Our need for a mother, a presence of home, is part of God’s design for human souls.

I think part of the reason I found this so moving is that it’s a way of thinking and speaking that’s presently lacking in both our politics and our conversations on life issues. It’s both tender and humane, and through it we discover a truth about where we can trace our material origins that doesn’t require argument or analysis, but simply a willingness to listen and consider. It reframes life issues from their extreme focus on rights and duties, to one of hospitality and love. And through this reframing, we might consider Roger Scruton’s belief that ours is largely “a loveless culture, which is afraid of beauty because it is disturbed by love.”

Late spring in Georgetown

It feels more like summer than spring, and I’m thinking about things to do this summer. A visit to Washington’s Aquatic Gardens is on the list, and if I make it, it’ll be inspired by Horace Gregory:

There is a stirring of grey light overhead,—
These are the Water Gardens, green paths
That walk between the waters, and the white lotus
Where at its center the sun shines inward
To the root. And here are sleeping lilies,
And that grey presence is a fallen tree
Raising its leafless arms
Above the water.

Pale green, pale ochre,—
Here one discovers five seasons of the soul:
Spring, summer, autumn, winter, and the season
Of light where the spirit lives,
Tibet at evening or at early morning
In the grey light that cannot fall
From the sky at noon. It is where
Reeds and grasses contemplate
The heavens, the multiple smiling
Creatures within the clouds,
The gods and lesser gods behind
A veil of rain.

One could believe
That the heat of summer is unknown here,
That the white lotus conceals the sun
Beneath the snow.

Above us a steel blade.

State College for six waking hours

I woke up around 7am in State College, Pennsylvania this morning at the Super 8 on South Atherton Street, went for a short run, showered, and headed to the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s second board meeting of the year. It’s hot out, and I left the window of my hotel room open and woke up to the Nittany Valley’s near-muggy air. I love weather like this partly because, whether walking or driving through town or the outlying countryside, you encounter the near-summertime in a sensual way—the scents, breezes, and verdant sights are right there for you, if you’re open to receive these gifts.

After the meeting, I drove to Meyer Dairy to pick up some cheese and lemonade, and then to downtown State College for a short walk. Penn State and State College have emptied out with the end of spring classes, and so campus and town are especially peaceful this Sunday morning:

I like solitary trips like this as both a way to think and as a way to go deep with audiobooks. I’m listening to Wilson D. Miscable’s “American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh” and Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.”

I drove up from Washington last night for this morning’s meeting, and am heading right back to Washington for a dinner meeting tonight.

Condensed symbols

In reading Rod Dreher recently, I came across this comment from one of his readers named Raskolnik:

Back in the 60’s, the sociologist Mary Douglas came up with the idea of a “condensed symbol.” The idea is that certain practices or ideas can become a kind of shorthand for a whole worldview. She used the example of fasting on Fridays, which the Bog Irish (generally lowerclass Irish Catholics living in England) persisted in doing, despite the fact that their better-educated, generally-upperclass clergy kept telling them to give to the poor or do something else that better fit with secular humanist mores instead. Her point was that the Bog Irish kept fasting, not due to obdurate traditionalism, or some misplaced faith in the “magical” effectiveness of the practice, but because it functioned as a “condensed symbol”: fasting on Fridays was a shorthand way of signifying connection to the past, to one’s identity as Irish, as well as to a less secularized (or completely non-secular) vision of what religious practice was all about. It acquired an outsized importance because it connected systems of meaning.

Mary Douglas apparently writes on “condensed symbols” in Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, but “condensation symbols” are apparently older:

condensation symbol is “a name, word, phrase, or maxim which stirs vivid impressions involving the listener’s most basic values and readies the listener for action,” as defined by political scientist Doris Graber. Short words or phrases such as “my country,” “old glory” “American Dream,” “family values,” are all condensation symbols because they conjure a specific image within the listener and carry “intense emotional and effective power.” Often used to further the meaning of a symbol or phrase, the condensation symbol has a semantic meaning, but through long-term use, it has acquired other connotations that further its symbolic meaning. Doris Graber identified three main characteristics of condensation symbols, as they: (1) Have the tendency to evoke rich and vivid images in an audience. (2) Possess the capacity to arouse emotions. (3) Supply instant categorizations and evaluations.

Joe Biden’s Philadelphia headquarters

Joe Biden is headquartering his campaign in Philadelphia:

Joe Biden will base his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, setting up in a city where he has deep ties and in a state that is central to his strategy. …

“We’re proud to anchor our campaign in the birthplace of American democracy,” said a statement to The Inquirer from Greg Schultz, Biden’s campaign manager. “Philadelphia is a thriving city and a testament to the American spirit, built by the ingenuity and tenacity of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Its storied history and celebrated diversity will serve as an inspiration for Team Biden, and is the ideal setting to continue our fight for the soul of this nation.”

The national headquarters, which will be in Center City, will have around 50 staffers to start, a number that could grow as the campaign goes on, and especially if Biden wins the Democratic nomination. The site will become the day-to-day nerve center for Biden’s strategic planning, media team, and others. …

Democrats and Republicans both view Pennsylvania as one of the most critical battlegrounds in the 2020 race, and the Scranton-born Biden has staked much of his pitch on being able to win back the state that narrowly supported President Donald Trump in 2016.

Biden, the early leader in polls of the Democratic primary field, was sometimes dubbed Pennsylvania’s “third senator” when he represented Delaware and, after his term as vice president, established the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania.

His wife, Jill, grew up in Willow Grove.

Pennsylvania has also been a major focus for Trump, a Penn graduate who has held dozens of rallies in the state and is scheduled to return Monday for an event near Williamsport, two days after Biden appears in Philadelphia.

Good for Philadelphia.

Distributed

Matt Mullenweg has started Distributed, a podcast:

The cofounder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic embarks on a journey to understand the future of work. Having built his own 900-person company with no offices and employees scattered across 68 countries, Mullenweg examines the benefits and challenges of distributed work and recruiting talented people around the globe.

I listened to the first episode today:

The first episode is a conversation with Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork, about how they built a distributed culture, and how flexible work will shape the future of the global economy.

Unlike Automattic, Upwork does have an office in Silicon Valley (albeit one with a remote receptionist!). It was interesting to hear how Stephane’s teams balance in-person culture with inclusiveness for all employees, no matter where they live. Read more about Stephane’s work at Distributed.blog, and subscribe at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Looking forward to these conversations. When I think of what I want my life to look like, it’s hard to imagine that my next five decades should be characterized by the 20th century office environment.

Washington, DC living expenses

Elly Yu writes that a “modest yet adequate” living for a family in the Washington, DC area requires annual income of at least $105,000:

…this cost is being driven largely in part by the rising price of childcare and housing, experts say.

The Economic Policy Institute’s “Family Budget Calculator” measures the income a family needs to cover basic living expenses, including housing, food, child care and transportation. The budget is based on figures from 2017.

Of the top 100 metro areas in the country, D.C. had the 10th-highest costs in the country for a two-parent, two-childhood household. The San Francisco metro area ranked 1st with an average cost of $148,440. The median family income for the D.C. region was $113,810, in 2017, according to American Community Survey. …

The budget doesn’t include expenses like student loan debt or saving up for rainy day funds.

Gould says the cost of childcare, which has been rising much faster than inflation in recent years, is one of the drivers of rising living costs. According to the calculator, childcare for a family with two children (one four-year-old, and one older school-aged child) costs on average $1,762 a month. …

The costs do also vary throughout the region. In the District, the average income a family of four needs to make is higher than the metro region at $123,975. In Prince George’s County, the figure is $90,824 and in Arlington County, the figure is $113,915.

Housing and the cost of childcare are consistent drivers of rising costs of living, meaning that it makes sense to make a home ideally both where there is family and where the cost of housing is inexpensive. Even if earnings are far lower, quality of daily life is likely to end up being much higher. Daily life can be less frenetic, involve less stress over finances and debt, incorporate family and extended family in a more consistent way, and require little or no professional childcare costs.

We have the means to construct these sorts of lives, but socially and culturally our economic and corporate habits haven’t yet changed to reflected that the technology enables for a distributed workforce in most cases. We don’t all need to be living in the same few expensive metro areas in order to physically work together in high-rent offices in most cases.

Strange economics

Warren Buffett says no textbook could have predicted the strange economy we have today:”

The current economic environment is one that no one could have seen coming, Warren Buffett said. …

Buffett noted that unemployment is at generation lows, yet inflation and interest rates are not rising. While at the same time the U.S. government continues to spend more money than it takes in.

“No economics textbook I know that was written in the first couple of thousand years that discussed even the possibility that you could have this sort of situation continue and have all variables stay more or less the same,” Buffett told CNBC’s Becky Quick on Thursday ahead of the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha …

The Labor Department said Friday the unemployment rate fell to 3.6% in April, the lowest since 1969. However, inflation was up just 1.6% on a year-over-year basis in March. That’s well below the Federal Reserve’s 2% inflation target. The overnight interest rate is also below historical levels despite four rate hikes in 2018. The central bank, at its meeting this week, kept rates unchanged at a target range of 2.25% to 2.50% …

“I don’t think our present conditions can exist in terms of fiscal and monetary policy and various other elements across the political landscape,” he said. “I think it will change, I don’t know when, or to what degree. But I don’t think this can be done without leading to other things.”

“While at the same time the U.S. government continues to spend more money than it takes in…”

How narrow and selfish

Chris Arnade writes on “back row America”:

I first walked into the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx because I had been told not to. I had been told it was too dangerous and too poor, and that I was too white. I had been told that “nobody goes there for anything but drugs and prostitutes.” The people telling me this were my colleagues (other bankers), my neighbors (other wealthy Brooklynites), and my friends (other academics). All, like me, successful, well-educated people who had opinions on the Bronx but had never been there.

It was 2011, and I was in my eighteenth year as a Wall Street bond trader. I spent my work days sitting behind a wall of computers, gambling on flashing numbers, on a downtown Manhattan trading floor filled with hundreds of other people who did exactly the same thing. My home life was spent in a large Brooklyn apartment, in a neighborhood filled with other successful people.

I wasn’t in the mood to listen to anyone, especially other bankers, other academics, and the educated experts who were my neighbors. I hadn’t been for a few years. In 2008, the financial crisis had consumed the country and my life, sending Citibank, the company I worked for, into a tailspin stopped only by a government bailout. I had just seen where hubris—my own included—had taken us, and what it had cost the country. Not that it had actually cost us bankers, or my neighbors, much of anything.

I was in the habit of taking walks, sometimes as long as fifteen miles, to explore and reduce stress, but now my walks began to evolve. Rather than setting out with some plan to walk the entire length of Broadway, or along the length of a subway line, I started walking the less-seen parts of New York City. Along the way, I talked to anyone who talked to me. I used my camera to take portraits of people I met.

What I started seeing and learning was just how cloistered and privileged my world was—and how narrow and selfish I was.

I started reading Chris Arnade after discovering him on Twitter at some point in 2016 or so. His writing helped prepare me for President Trump’s victory, because his writing reveals aspects of the American people from which our ruling class has alienated itself:

Where do most of the press and elites get it wrong? They don’t believe that we live in a two-tiered system. They don’t believe, or know they are in, the top tier. They also don’t understand what people view as value.